A protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (on left poster) while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is on the other poster; Tel Aviv 19 April 2020

The king and the boss

Turkish President Erdoğan is no fan of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu — and vice versa


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no fan of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — and vice versa. Last December, the Turkish leader said that Netanyahu’s war on Palestinians in Gaza was not “any less than what Hitler did”. The Israeli premier returned the favour, accusing Erdoğan of “genocide” against his Kurdish citizens.

Despite all the heated words, Erdoğan and Netanyahu are far more similar than they are different. Both leaders have successfully built religious nationalist coalitions that have kept them in power for decades, transforming a competitive political system into de facto one-party rule. Both have a similar cult of personality: Netanyahu is nicknamed “King Bibi” and Erdoğan is nicknamed “Reis”, the Turkish word for “boss”. Both have gone to war with the old-guard westernised institutions in their countries, including the military brass.

And both are living on borrowed time politically. Erdoğan’s AK Party won a minority of votes in Turkish local elections this April, suggesting that he would be voted out if presidential elections were held today. (Erdoğan has said he will not run in the 2028 presidential election, though he is expected to hand-pick a successor.) Similarly, Israeli polling shows that Netanyahu’s coalition would lose early elections, which he has only been able to avoid due to the need for a wartime unity government.

A problem for democracy

It’s no coincidence that the same type of strongman rose to power in both countries. The modern republics of Turkey and Israel were founded by secular revolutionaries and refugees from religious persecution in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. Those founding fathers tried to replace traditional faith with national pride as the basis for the state. Erdoğan and Netanyahu represent a new synthesis between religious and nationalist identity with broader popular appeal than all the competitors.


That appeal is starting to wear off, without a clear replacement. Erdoğan and Netanyahu have come close to losing power over the past couple of years — and Netanyahu briefly did lose the prime ministership from 2021 to 2022 — to a broad coalition of centrists, leftists, dissident right-wingers and ethnic minorities. But the opposition’s broadness also makes it fragile. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that the Big Man is a problem for democracy.

Ironically, “democracy” has also become a slogan for defending undemocratic institutions. Whilst Erdoğan has cracked down on the press and civil society, his consolidation of power has also meant bringing the secular, coup-prone Turkish military to heel. In the same vein, Netanyahu’s attempts to cow Israel’s Supreme Court have run into heavy opposition from the Air Force officer corps and the intelligence services, long seen as bastions of Ashkenazi (European Jewish) elitism.

Meanwhile, open ethnic conflicts have done more to divide than unite the opposition. Kurdish citizens of Turkey have been living through a slow-motion civil war between Kurdish rebels and the repressive state apparatus for decades. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of course, needs no explanation. It is worth noting that Palestinians in the pre-1948 borders of Israel and in East Jerusalem — but no other Palestinians — are eligible for Israeli citizenship. Palestinian and other Arab citizens make up about a fifth of the Israeli electorate, around the same proportion as Kurds in Turkey.

Fragile coalitions

Both minorities’ participation in politics are severely circumscribed. Turkey has quite stringent laws against “separatism”, and Israel bans political parties from “negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”. These governments have interpreted the laws in ways that make it quite difficult for Kurdish or Israeli Arab parties to operate. It’s no coincidence, either, that Turkey and Israel both have electoral thresholds making it harder for small parties to win seats in parliament.

Even without legal barriers, there is a big political dilemma hamstringing Kurdish and Israeli Arab representation. On one hand, the close margins in recent elections give Kurdish and Israeli Arab voters a lot of leverage over the opposition. On the other hand, the demands of minority-led parties are a deal-breaker for their secular nationalist partners in the opposition, and vice versa.

It’s an especially acute problem when “internal” and “external” wars combine. Erdoğan has overseen Turkish invasions of Syria and periodic campaigns in Iraqi Kurdistan to flush out Kurdish rebels. The invasion of Afrin, Syria in 2018 drove a deep wedge between Turkish secular nationalists, who rallied around the flag; and Kurdish leftists in parliament, who accused the army of “ethnic cleansing”. A year later, former Israeli general and opposition leader Benny Gantz ran an advert bragging about his body count in Gaza, leading Palestinian member of the lsraeli parliament Ahmad Tibi to refuse his support for Gantz’s coalition.

The coalition that briefly unseated Netanyahu in 2021 was an extreme example of all these dynamics. The prime ministership was shared between Yair Lapid, a staunch secularist who once said that he was guided by the principle of “maximum Jews on maximum land with maximum security and with minimum Palestinians”, and Naftali Bennett, an Orthodox Jew who once led the West Bank settlers’ council. They shared a cabinet with far-left and far-right ministers, defectors from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and even an Arab Islamist party.

The coalition, of course, fell apart over the Palestinian issue. Centrist and right-wing members of the government wanted to extend the legal mandate for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a routine measure, whilst Arab and some left-wing deputies refused to play along. As the governing coalition collapsed and snap elections were called, Netanyahu was able to (correctly) portray himself as a more effective vehicle for nationalist ambitions than the Frankenstein’s monster of the Lapid–Bennett government.

Turkey’s Table of Six similarly brought together opposition from across the political spectrum on an anti-Erdoğan platform for the 2023 elections, and it similarly failed due to ethnic issues. The social democrat Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu sat at the top of the Table of Six’s ticket, with right-wing secular nationalist Meral Aksener as his running mate and Kurdish leftists as outside partners.

Thanks to the nationalist spoiler candidate Sinan Oğan, neither Erdoğan nor Kiliçdaroğlu won more than 50 per cent of the vote, sending the election into a runoff. Ogan was now the kingmaker. He made his priorities clear: sending Syrian refugees back and cracking down on Kurdish parties. Though Kiliçdaroglu tried to woo Oğan with anti-refugee stances, his heart wasn’t in it — and he relied too much on Kurdish voters to fully satisfy Oğan’s demands. Oğan endorsed Erdoğan, who won the runoff.

Long-term problems

The dynamics in Turkey and Israel are even more similar than they appear, because the differences in electoral systems have made the same political dynamics play out differently. Israel has a European-style parliamentary system, so all it took was a vote of no confidence to dethrone King Bibi. The real challenge for the opposition was coalition-building after the election. Erdoğan replaced Turkey’s parliamentary system with an American-style presidential system in 2018, so the Turkish leader only has to survive a re-election challenge every five years, and the opposition has to present its slate of candidates before the vote.

Erdoğan and Netanyahu can’t bet on opposition disunity indefinitely, however, whilst the material sources of their support drain away. Netanyahu had sold himself to Israeli voters as “Mr Security”, the man who could manage Israel’s conflicts so the public never had to think about them. That illusion was shattered quite dramatically in October 2023. Erdoğan, meanwhile, had promised to uplift the pious lower middle class through an economic boom driven largely by construction. That came crumbling down, literally, with a devastating February 2023 earthquake.

Netanyahu’s policy of a quietly-managed occupation ended up undermining itself

These sudden shocks revealed long-term problems. Turkey had been suffering from runaway inflation for years. Erdoğan insisted that lowering interest rates would cure all economic ills, which only drove inflation up. It was a conviction driven by the fact that low interest rates did benefit the business interests closest to Erdoğan, combined with the traditional Islamic taboo on usury. By the time he began to reverse course in mid-2023, years of damage had already been done to the economy.

Similarly, Netanyahu’s policy of a quietly-managed occupation ended up undermining itself. Entrenching Israeli control over the West Bank confirmed the power of nationalist settlers who did not want quiet conflict management; they wanted to aggressively provoke Palestinians from a position of strength. On the flipside, Netanyahu dropped even the pretence of allowing Palestinian self-rule. With the Palestinian Authority discredited, wildcat guerrilla groups filled the power vacuum. Throughout 2022 and 2023, ethnic violence in the West Bank heated up, drawing Israeli army units away from the Gaza frontier.

A cult of personality can only survive so many egregious missteps. King Bibi seems less kingly now that he has overseen the most terrifying security breach in Israeli history, and Reis is not a very good boss if his workers have got poorer under his watch. Add the stench of corruption: Netanyahu is currently facing criminal charges for accepting bribes, and Erdoğan’s inner circle (including his son) have been dogged with accusations of graft.

These two leaders, previously seen as inseparable from the movements they led, may become disposable to their followers. A significant chunk of the AK Party’s losses in the Turkish elections this year came from Yeniden Refah, a rival religious nationalist party. Meanwhile, in Israel, polls show a huge surge in support for the National Unity Party, a coalition of Likud defectors and previously apolitical military men. Whilst the strategy of allying with leftists has not worked out for dissident nationalists, trying to unseat the Likud and the AK Party from within their own coalitions might.

Ironically, for all the similarities, Turkey and Israel have become bogeymen in each other’s politics. During the 2019 elections, Gantz’s Kachol Lavan Party presented Turkey as a cautionary tale about cults of personality. One of Gantz’s adverts featured a video of Erdoğan speaking to parliament, overlaid with a recording of a Netanyahu speech. “Only Kachol Lavan will stop a government by Erdoğan,” the narrator concluded.

This year, Yeniden Refah outflanked Erdoğan on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. For all the mutual accusations of Hitlerism, Turkey and Israel have continued to maintain trade relations — from which Erdoğan’s son himself has profited, journalist Metin Cihan revealed in November 2023. In the run-up to the elections, protesters called on Erdoğan to cut ties with Israel, whilst Yeniden Refah ran its own ads showing AK Party ballots transforming into Israeli bullets. Only after his punishing electoral losses did Erdoğan impose sanctions on Israeli trade.

Netanyahu and Erdoğan: they can’t live with each other, and they can’t live without each other.

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